This masterly and important autobiographical drawing was made by Rowlandson in the 1780s, when he made a number of trips with his friend and sketching companion Henry Wigstead. The marvelously fluid and assured sheet shows the interior of a coach booking office early in the morning with Wigstead and Rowlandson negotiating a journey with the booking clerk. Preserved in exceptional condition, this sheet demonstrates Rowlandson’s remarkable facility as a draughtsman and exceptional ability at recording the incidental moments of eighteenth-century life.
Thomas Rowlandson was born in London and trained at the Royal Academy Schools, where he won the silver medal in 1777 for a figure in bas-relief. But rather than pursue a career as a sculptor or painter, Rowlandson became a hugely successful draughtsman, a wry observer of contemporary mores and a cartoonist in the manner of Hogarth. Whilst Rowlandson’s sense of the absurd is Hogarthian, his fluid, confident drawing style owes a great deal to contemporary French art.
Rowlandson and Wigstead are recorded as making three tours together: to the Isle of Wight in 1784, the Brighton in 1789, and to Wales in 1797. The drawings associated with the first are chiefly in the Huntington and, as Robert Wark points out, are from a sketchbook with leaves much smaller in size than the present sheet. The Welsh drawings are also smaller in size, suggesting that the present sheet relates to the trip to Brighton, although John Hayes has noted that the list of destinations in the coach booking office – ‘Coaches Set out from/this Place/Dover/Sandwich/Margate’- points to a Continental trip. Although the internal evidence of the drawing itself raises an alternative possibility. The yawning postilion is seen entering from the right and a porter on the left is seen carrying a large trunk and selection of game, suggesting that the drawing was made at the end of a successful trip to the country. Certainly the page seems to have come from one of Rowlandson’s sketchbooks and the verso contains a fascinating colour trial.
Rowlandson regularly commemorated his trips with anecdotal studies of this kind, but rarely are they as exquisitely or beautifully finished as The Coach Booking Office. The present drawing was in the collections of the Earl of Mayo, Desmond Coke and Leonard Dent, three of the most distinguished collectors of drawings by Rowlandson.